Winston Churchill once said, “History will treat me kindly, because I intend to write it.”
Famed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein followed in Churchill’s footsteps, telling the world that their indefatigable reporting broke the Watergate scandal. They now take umbrage with a new movie, “Mark Felt: The man who brought down the White House,” which is based on the book I co-authored, because it shows that FBI Associate Director Mark Felt was the true moving cause exposing our country’s most significant political scandal.
There are certainly those whose confirmation bias will bring them to “Woodstein’s” defense, several of the early movie reviews so proving. But Woodward and Bernstein should be content to savor 43 years of unchallenged exaggeration. Woodward, to be sure, was Felt’s daily-circulation megaphone, a resource on which the cub reporter capitalized to stay on the story. But as the new movie explains, Woodward was only the puppet of a master puppeteer.
I was a young federal prosecutor in 1974 when the book “All the President’s Men” was published. I followed the Post reporting intensely, convinced that the reporters were simply tailgating on Department of Justice (prosecutors, FBI) sources. The revelation of the Deep Throat character in the reporters’ bestselling book only confirmed my thesis, because Deep Throat was so obviously a Department of Justice official. Woodward’s claim to “protect” his source’s identity was mostly fig leaf and feint, because anyone with a brain and an attention span could have sussed out Felt immediately. If Felt had been ratting out the Mafia, he would quickly have been fitted for concrete overshoes.
One problem faced by any of the movie’s reviewers is the conventional but incomplete and distorted view of how the Watergate cover-up was eventually punctured, which the movie seeks to remedy. Most remember the vivid explosion — John Dean’s Senate testimony, James McCord’s dramatic letter to Judge John Sirica. But few have made the effort to determine the cause of the explosion.
The movie, directed by Peter Landesman, shows the bombs, the fuses and the timer, all put in place by Felt. He was originally ordered by his political hack boss, L. Patrick Gray, to shut down the Watergate investigation in 48 hours, which Felt easily handled by whispering in the ear of Time magazine’s Sandy Smith, who in turn questioned a stunned Gray. So much for his 48-hour order.
On Sept. 15, 1972, U.S. Attorney General Richard Kleindienst indicted only the seven original suspects, while a Department of Justice lawyer told reporters the investigation was “in a state of repose.” Now Felt went to work, not to take down the White House, but to keep his investigation open and avoid charges of whitewash. He gave the Post reporters Donald Segretti’s nationwide dirty tricks program on a silver platter. When the newspaper hesitated, he hauled Woodward into the garage for an all-night cram course on how to connect the dots. The result was an article so forceful that it resulted in the formation of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, D-North Carolina, just two days later.
In late February 1973, the White House was still keeping its leaky ship afloat, hoping to solidify its defenses by the Senate confirmation of L. Patrick Gray as the FBI’s permanent director. But Felt set up the Senate with key questions, via his latest leak-induced Time article, expecting that Gray would reveal White House interference in the investigation. His plan succeeded, perhaps excessively, as the hapless Gray self-destructed. But in the process, Gray revealed enough about John Dean to send him into prosecutors’ arms, followed by Dean’s cohort Jeb Magruder.